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Tin cans and generation gaps

I’ll let you in on a little secret: a tin can is a powerful symbol. Or at least in my experience, it has been. On a good number of occasions, I have met with intergenerational groups to discuss church communications. Most of the time, these mixed groups have a wealth of ideas that range from forcing the Bishop to use Twitter to knocking on doors and handing out tracts. And most of the time, these mixed groups have reached an impasse by trying to be all things to all people. Sooner or later, without fail, someone in the group blurts out something about tin cans and strings. It’s fascinating. Of course, it’s a sarcastic response that surfaces only in frustration, but I think it represents something we need to be honest about: different generations communicate differently.

Generations are hard to define. They don’t have clear boundaries, and the characteristics we use to define them are seldom universal. The beat generation, millennials, and boomers overlap and intermingle in ways that we can’t pin down with statistics or generalizations. And yet, major cultural events allows us to draw clear lines: political movements, wars, economic changes. Each of these “generations” comes with its own attitudes, artistic expressions, and methods for building community. If you’ve studied art history, you’ve probably spent a fair amount of time dividing your particular art form, whether literature, painting, or music, into periods. Sometimes I wonder if dividing generations by periods of artistic expression might make a little more sense than by either the socio-political events artists react to, or by meaningless periods of 30 years or so.

In any case, what it comes down to is this: over time, people change. Or do they? Right now, we seem to find ourselves in a mess of generational transitions. In this blog, Lutheran Pastor Keith Anderson calls it a “generational log jam.” Using Carroll Sheppard and Nancy Burton Dilliplane’s framework, he divides the church into six generations:

  • Builders, born 1901-1924
  • Silents, born 1925-1942(45)
  • Baby Boomers 1943(46)-1960(63) – these three groups above are called olders
  • Gen X, born 1961(63)-1981(84) – these three groups below are called youngers
  • Millenials, born 1982(85)-2001
  • Gen Z, born 2001-

Anderson notes that “Congregational leaders are faced with having to be all things to each of the six generational cohorts: Builders, Silents, Boomers, GenXers, Millennials and the young “GenZers.” What that seems to imply is that congregational leaders need to adopt a variety of styles of ministry (or at least build an intergenerational team that can help them to do so). But perhaps what I find most fascinating about Anderson’s challenge is the suggestion that Gen Xers should be the natural bridge between olders and youngers. As someone on the tail-end of Gen X, it makes sense to me: I’ve lived in both analogue and digital worlds, and played an active role in the social transition. But I’m not sure the lines are as clear-cut as that.

Why? Because while younger people may communicate differently than their elders, they aren’t necessarily looking for a different kind of religious experience. I think that sometimes, that’s where we get stuck: we assume that new communication tools should and will reinvent the church and its ministry. And we assume that those who use newer tools are seeking something entirely different that their elders. If you’ve made those assumptions, let me encourage you to read Karl Vaters’ new small chuch blog, where he takes a serious look at what millenials are looking for. The answer may surprise you: digital natives are looking for intimacy and relationships. Perhaps the generational shifts we have experienced (especially the most current ones) have less to do with changes in human need and desire, and more to do with changes in methods of communication.

What does that mean for those of us who live and serve in the generational log jam? First and foremost, it means that we’re all the same. Young, old, or somewhere in between: all seek communities of love, service, and worship. Once we’ve accepted that, we can begin listening and expressing those truths with the native tools of the communities we find ourselves in, whether that means using social networks, telephones, or tin cans. But it also leaves us with a challenge, as we search for ways to bridge the communication gaps between generations. I can’t help but think the answer lies not in the tools, but in our common humanity: in our faith, and in need to love, serve, and worship.

Have you managed to bridge the gap? What has your congregation done to make connections between those who communicate differently?

About Jesse Dymond

I’m a priest from the Diocese of Huron, serving as Online Community Coordinator for the Anglican Church of Canada. I have a lifelong interest in computer technology, and continue to pursue interdisciplinary studies in science and theology. I love composing and performing music, cooking, photography, sailing, and riding vintage motorcycles.

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3 Responses to Tin cans and generation gaps

  1. I’m super excited that the church is giving this kind of attention to the intersection of church and technology. I think on the whole we’re woefully ill equipped to think and talk about how digital life is changing our world and our experience of church.

    While I certainly agree that there are essentials that remain and that there is room for intergenerational commonality in what we want out of church, I’m not really convinced that we aren’t looking for a different kind of religious experience. (Or, Jesse, forgive me if I’m not really getting the fullness of what you mean by religious experience). The church and faith of my youth (NB: I’m about the same age as the blog post author here, but a different denominational background) was one where you had to be old, or have the right kind of last name, or be a guy to matter to the church. It was also boring. In a lot of ways I think the youngers, empowered by cheap and fast technology, are looking to rattle the status quo in a way that they could not access in earlier generations. Or at least own the status quo. I think we’re looking for a new kind of religious experience – one where authority is grounded in something other than institution, one where Christ and culture exist in inextricable interplay, and one where we can be seen in places where we were not seen before. If you buy McLuhan, and I do on this point, it’s not just the mediums that are changing, but the messages along with it.

  2. I’m super excited that the church is giving this kind of attention to the intersection of church and technology. I think on the whole we’re woefully ill equipped to think and talk about how digital life is changing our world and our experience of church.

    While I certainly agree that there are essentials that remain and that there is room for intergenerational commonality in what we want out of church, I’m not really convinced that we aren’t looking for a different kind of religious experience. (Or, Jesse, forgive me if I’m not really getting the fullness of what you mean by religious experience). The church and faith of my youth (NB: I’m about the same age as the blog post author here, but a different denominational background) was one where you had to be old, or have the right kind of last name, or be a guy to matter to the church. It was also boring. In a lot of ways I think the youngers, empowered by cheap and fast technology, are looking to rattle the status quo in a way that they could not access in earlier generations. Or at least own the status quo. I think we’re looking for a new kind of religious experience – one where authority is grounded in something other than institution, one where Christ and culture exist in inextricable interplay, and one where we can be seen in places where we were not seen before. If you buy McLuhan, and I do on this point, it’s not just the mediums that are changing, but the messages along with it.

  3. I agree with you, Erin. I guess when I say “religious experience,” I’m looking at things a lot more simply: not in terms of liturgical style, social structure, etc., but as the basic human need for relationship with God and with one another. And if we allow ourselves to see all these things: liturgy, music, governance, as expressions of what lies beneath, then it makes sense that those expressions (aka styles of communication) will change from generation to generation.

    Granted, that’s an abstract and deconstructed way of looking at it, but I think it leads us to the same conclusion. The question for me is this: how do we live in [constant] transition?

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